John H Conway and the invention of the filing cabinet

Conway is incredibly untidy. The tables in his room at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics in Cambridge are heaped high with papers, books, unanswered letters, notes, models, charts, tables, diagrams, dead cups of coffee, and the most amazing assortment of bric-a-brac, which has overflowed most of the floor and all of the chairs, so that it is hard to take more than a pace or two into the room and impossible to sit down. If you can reach the blackboard there is a wide range of coloured chalk, but no space to write. His room in college is in a similar state. In spite of his excellent memory he often fails to find the piece of paper with the important result that he discovered some days before, and which is recorded nowhere else. Even Conway came to see that this was not a desirable state of affairs, and he set to work designing and drawing plans for a device which might induce some order amongst the chaos. He was about to take his idea to someone to get it implemented, when he realised that just what he wanted was standing, empty, in the corner of his room. Conway had invented the filing cabinet!

Richard K Guy on John H Conway, in Mathematical People

I originally posted this to Posterous on 27 October, 2012. Posterous is closing down, so I have migrated it here on 13 March, 2013.

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